Looking for the Exit

Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture

by Carl E. Schorske
Knopf, 378 pp., $15.95

Gustav Klimt
Gustav Klimt; drawing by David Levine

This winter the Royal Academy in London has been holding a large, beautiful, and instructive exhibition, under the loose title “Post-Impressionism,” whose impact seems likely to change many people’s map of the arts. It is an exhibition which suggests the European background Carl Schorske only touches on in his essays on Vienna—and which could have been stronger if it had taken account of the artistic developments traced in Schorske’s book. Organized by Alan Bowness, backed by IBM money, and underwritten for insurance purposes by the last Labour government, it provided a large cross-section of much that was going on in European painting from the emergence of Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat, and Van Gogh—those four amazing offspring of the Impressionism of the mid-1870s—to the first awkward stirrings of the Fauves and the German Expressionists around 1905.

This show and its catalogue brought more vividly to our eyes and minds perhaps than it had ever been before the “fin de siècle,” those closing years of the great nineteenth century which have so often been interpreted—according to the interpreter’s particular interest—as a time of decadence and faded aestheticism, or else as an interlude on the heroic road from the Salon des Refusés to fully fledged abstract art, or as a period of growing working-class cultural and political awareness. Richly presented in so unhackneyed a way, the years prove to be all these things and a great deal more, swelling in the mind’s eye till they seem neither an end nor an interlude but a distinctive and coherent stage in European civilization: the missing background to Carl Schorske’s new book.

Above all, it is the internationalism of those years that remains so striking. Thanks to the new exhibiting societies of the 1890s (along with the new techniques of photoengraving) the same pictorial influences could be seen and felt throughout Europe: artists like Whistler, Beardsley, Gauguin, Puvis de Chavannes, Toorop, Munch, or Segantini might show in Brussels, Venice, or Munich (or be reproduced in The Studio), while competent followers of Bastien-Lepage or the Neo-Impressionists could be found in many countries. In the other arts too a similar universality could be felt. Ibsen, Wagner, and Nietzsche dominated the cultural life of one country after another; Maeterlinck, following Octave Mirbeau’s accolade for his first book of poems in 1893, became a world-wide best seller whose handful of stage works were set by composers like Fauré, Debussy, Schoenberg, and Sibelius and staged by Reinhardt and Stanislavsky.

It was a matter not just of suggestive new techniques (divisionism or the chord of the diminished seventh) or themes (industrial wastelands, returning miners, children on the beach) but of a shift in fundamental attitudes following the Franco-Prussian War and the Impressionist breakthrough. Secularism at this point coexisted with symbolism; anarchism with humanitarianism; high aestheticism with an almost functional, anti-elitist and certainly anti-specialist drive for the popularization and application of the arts. Following the lead…

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